Straight Talk: Oprah's Leadership Lessons

Oprah keeps asking: how do I live my best life?
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A small tempest is raging now about Kitty Kelley's just-released (and unauthorized) biography of Oprah Winfrey. Pick up a newspaper. Log onto the Internet. Turn on the radio or television. In all these outlets, the eye of the storm is the same: what secrets does Ms. Kelley have to tell about one of the most powerful people in the world? The author's chosen "disclosures" range from Oprah's interest in her biological father, to her relationship with longtime friend Gayle King.

We take this all in and we are interested -- in a slightly sordid and demeaning way. Consuming this kind of news over and over again is like eating potato chips. We know the food is not good for us. The first handful tastes delicious, but by the eighth handful, we feel downright bad about the chips consumed and about ourselves for eating them.

There is another-perhaps bigger cost-to the kind of storm whipped up by Ms. Kelley and her talented publicists. That is, the salacious wind and waves (do we really want to know about the birth certificate for a child Oprah bore as a teenager, a child that lived only a few weeks?) distract us from the real story of Oprah's journey thus far and what its larger lessons are for all of us.

That story is one of leadership. And the true frame is not about "gotcha secrets" along Oprah's path, but about how, step by step, she has created enormous influence and how, day by day, decision by decision, she uses that impact. This power extends far beyond her talk show. She is a successful businessperson, entrepreneur, world-class brand steward (who would not want her brand?) and philanthropist; a committed teacher and a dedicated motivator, who has channeled her gifts, discipline, energy and experience into helping herself - and those she leads - craft lives of decency and respect.

Starting with herself and then broadening her focus to those she touches, Oprah keeps asking: how do I live my best life? What is my larger purpose and how, in the face of all life's hurdles -- large and small -- do I keep trying to fulfill my mission? In recent years, her work has also unfolded on a larger stage as she has become involved in a range of social issues, from literacy, to AIDS prevention, to accountability in the publishing business.

In all of these endeavors, two aspects of Oprah's leadership stand out.

The first is her commitment to acting on what Lincoln called "the better angels of our nature" and to inciting those she influences to do the same. At this moment in history, when so many leaders have played fast, loose and dirty with our trust, and our money and our lives, when so many people in power seem to be for sale, here is someone different-a leader who is not all about baseness, but about helping us be better tomorrow than we are today; who is not open to the highest bidder, and who is a thoughtful fiduciary of the trust granted her.

Several years ago, I saw the power of Oprah's leadership up close when I was teaching a case I wrote on her at the Harvard Business School. When the class began, many women MBA students spoke enthusiastically about Oprah and the impact she had had on their lives. But the male students were virtually silent. Then as the class progressed, some of them started talking about people they knew who had been affected by Oprah. Toward the end of class, one young man, a Wall Street veteran, raised his hand and said that he had never seen "The Oprah Winfrey Show." But his mother, who had recently come through a terrible divorce, was a devoted fan. "She always said that she could never have gotten through this trauma," said the student, "without the inspiration and strength she had every [week] day from watching Oprah."

The second key aspect of Oprah's leadership is her humanity. She leads from the heart, using her own experience, including her setbacks and mistakes, to strengthen and motivate others. Her leadership is grounded in self-knowledge, emotional awareness, and the ongoing ability to laugh at herself. Leaders from all walks of life have much to learn from this example, for while candor and emotional vulnerability are risky, they are far less so than artificiality, especially in an era of increasing transparency.

The American novelist David Foster Wallace once wrote that true leaders are people "who help us overcome the limitations of our own laziness and selfishness and weakness and fear and get us to do better, harder things than we can get ourselves to do on our own." This is the larger arch of Oprah Winfrey's journey thus far, one we can all learn much more from than the momentary bluster of "gotcha secrets."

Nancy Koehn is a noted historian at Harvard Business School and authority for providing analysis on the social and economic impact of entrepreneurship and on leadership in turbulent times. Nancy expands on the leadership lessons of Oprah in her latest e-book, Oprah, Leading with Heart.

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